Who is God? That's the question the Matter of Faith 2014 Summer Series will consider.
The annual series, presented by the Ecumenical Conference of Greater Altoona, will address three topics: The Idea of God, The Nature of God and God's Engagement in the World.
Cindy Baney, facilitator, said the idea for this year's series came from the book "America's Four Gods" by Baylor University professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader and published in 2010.
She said Froese and Bader asked more than 3,000 Americans if they thought God interacted with the world and does God judge the world.
Based on their research, the sociology professors came up with four definitions of God: authoritative, benevolent, critical and distant.
Baney said according to the authors, how people perceive God affects their thoughts on social issues and how they vote.
Three different panels will tackle the topics and discuss them based on their faith traditions. She said a similar presentation was given in the fall of 2001 when the ecumenical conference held a panel discussion at Penn State Altoona. During that program, people representing the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, spoke on their beliefs and answered questions from the audience.
The committee planning this year's event decided to create a variation on that theme, Baney said.
Giving a brief description of the four Gods, she said the authoritative God is highly engaged in people's lives and highly judgmental.
She said people who see it this way would look at a hurricane destroying a city as God's way of punishing the people for wrongdoing.
People who think God is benevolent see him as highly engaged in the world and loving. They believe God is always there when they need him and even see the good that can come out of a tragedy, Baney said. If a tornado strikes a town, they will observe how the people came together to support one another, she said.
Baney said those who consider God to be critical believe he is highly judgmental with low engagement in people's lives. She said these people believe they are suffering now but God will reward them some day, that a special place is waiting for them.
She said those who consider God as distant see him as having little engagement with people and low judgment toward the world.
"How we think about God says a lot about us," Baney said.
The panelist will discuss their thoughts about God and the audience will be given an opportunity to take part in roundtable discussions.
One of the panelists speaking at the first session on "The Idea of God" will be Michael Allison, a Buddhist
"It's a wonderful topic of discussion," he said. "What you mean when you say 'God' varies from person to person."
Allison said Buddhists support others' paths to spiritual awareness, and they look for the commonality rather than the differences in others' beliefs.
He noted that the Buddha said he was not a god, he was a person, but he was awake.
"We revere his teaching," he said.
Allison will be joined at Tuesday's session by Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel and the Rev. Marlys Hershberger of Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren.
Shamsa Anwar, a Muslim, and Bishop James Hite of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are two of the panelists for the second session, "The Nature of God." It is scheduled for July 15.
"I think it will be interesting," Hite said. "We can expand on the understanding of our beliefs and maybe some misconceptions of what people think or don't think can be clarified."
He said the Mormons' concept of God would include the attributes of the "Four Gods" with the exception of the "Distant God."
He said Mormons believe God is the God of Jacob, Isaac and Abraham.
"I think he hears our prayers, and I certainly pray a lot," he said.
For people of the Islamic faith, God cannot be described or envisioned, Anwar said.
"He was never born. He has no children. There is nobody like him," she said.
She said the first words of the Quran speak of his mercy, which she said is forever and even extends to those who disobey him.
Anwar and Hite will be joined by the Rev. Rich Morris of Hicks Memorial United Methodist Church, Duncansville.
The third session on July 22 will focus on "God's Engagement in the World" or whether he is involved in what happens on the earth. Expressing their thoughts at that session will be Father Anthony Roeber of the Eastern Orthodox faith, Father Michael Becker of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Parish and April Neal of the Baha'i faith.
The free sessions will be held at 7 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, 311 Lotz Ave., Lakemont. Refreshments follow each session.
The series is made possible by a grant from the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.